Heidi Lee Pottinger’s 5-year-old son was at a football game last fall with his father when, following a touchdown, celebratory fireworks rocketed into the sky. Panicked by the popping sounds, the little boy turned to his dad.
“Active shooter!” he cried, tears in his eyes.
Pottinger’s son is one of millions of schoolchildren in America who have done active shooter and lockdown drills. The exercises, a legacy of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School rampage, are intended to prepare teachers and students for the rare threat of a gunman opening fire in their school.
Pottinger’s son started doing the drills at his private nursery-through-eighth-grade school when he was just 3. During the drills, the Tucson, Arizona, youngster — whom Pottinger asked NBC News not to name to protect his privacy — would quietly crouch with his classmates and teachers behind furniture, rehearsing what to do if a real shooter were to burst in.
The drills affected him deeply. At home, he bit his nails and did pretend lockdowns while he was playing. Eventually, he refused to go anywhere alone, even to his room or a bathroom at home.
“He would say, ‘The lockdown is going to get me,’” Pottinger, a maternal and child researcher at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, said. “It just really caught me off guard. ... This is his childhood and it should be carefree, and it’s not.”
Active shooter drills have become more common as school gun massacre after massacre has made headlines. The drills give teachers and students a blueprint to follow during emergencies, which may save lives. Forty-two states have laws requiring some sort of emergency or safety drills in schools, many of which are designed to protect against active shooters, according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.
But there is hardly any research on the drills’ effectiveness, and while there are some federal recommendations, there is no standard template for schools to follow in terms of how to do them, how often to conduct them and how to explain them to students of different ages.
Over the past two decades, the drills have ramped up in intensity — with some schools going so far as to use fake blood and fire blanks at students. A drill last month at an Indiana school prompted outrage when teachers were shot execution-style with pellet guns, leaving them injured.
At the same time, students’ anxieties have swelled. Some are not told that the lockdowns are just drills, prompting them to send what they believe are final goodbyes over text to their parents or faint or throw up. Others are afraid to go to school in the days following the drills.
As a result, a growing number of schools are experimenting with ways to lessen the toll of the drills while still doing everything possible to keep students safe. For some school districts, that means using age-appropriate language; for others, it involves having guidance counselors or school psychologists available during and after the drills.
But even relatively tame active shooter drills with plenty of warning can traumatize students, critics say, raising the question of whether schools should do them at all.
“Children are much more likely to be abused by a parent than shot at school, to be in a car accident, to be screamed at by a teacher. We don’t practice that.”
“Children are much more likely to be abused by a parent than shot at school, to be in a car accident, to be screamed at by a teacher. We don’t practice that,” said Joy Levinson, a New York City-based clinical psychologist who has had elementary-age clients tell her they wet their pants in class because drills made them afraid to go down the hall to the bathroom.
“It causes school to feel unsafe, like a place we can’t learn,” she said. “That’s what schools are for.”
Borrowing police and prison lingo for schools
Virtually all public schools in America teach students some form of emergency preparedness, ranging from fire and tornado drills to mock lockdowns.
While drills date back decades — students in the 1950s dove under their desks during the Cold War’s “duck-and-cover” nuclear bomb drills — it was only in the past 20 years that “active shooter” and “lockdown” entered the educational lexicon.
Originally a recreational hunting term, “active shooter” became part of law enforcement’s vocabulary after Columbine. The general public, including schools, started using the term several years later, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. At first, schools simply called the exercises “Columbine drills,” he said.
“Lockdown” drills, borrowed from prison jargon, later became regularly used to refer to a rehearsal for anything that might require students and teachers to stay put in a classroom with locked doors, closed windows, lights turned off and blinds drawn — such as nearby police activity, a natural disaster or an active shooter.
No matter what they’re called, the objective of the drills is clear: to protect students and teachers.
Fox argues that there is no way to prove active shooter drills work, because it would be impossible to conduct such an experiment. But some who have come face to face with gun violence say they are certain the drills saved lives.
When a gunman rushed toward a schoolyard full of children at Rancho Tehama Elementary in Corning, California, in November 2017, staff immediately ushered students inside. They implemented lockdown procedures they had rehearsed as the gunman shot at the building.
One student was shot in the chest and foot and survived. But no one else was hurt — something Corning Union Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick credited to staff, who he said “flawlessly” locked down the school after years of practice.
Many parents also support drills, saying it’s necessary for children to understand the dangers they could face.
“I think it’s important to have a plan," Sarah Caron, whose son survived the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, told Today.com last year, "even if it is ultimately deviated from.”
Are drills causing more harm than good?
Still, the backlash to active shooter drills has grown, amid criticism that they are particularly traumatic for children given that it’s hard to shield them from news coverage of mass shootings happening around the country.
“The tragedies are happening not just in public schools, but at a movie house down the street, at a nightclub,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million teachers and education support professionals.
“When they know what has happened from Columbine to Parkland and that crazed people have walked through schools," she said, "this is something that reminds them, ‘I could be killed every time I walk into school,’ even if there is a .0001 chance that this will ever happen to them.” (Last year, the Washington Post estimated the odds of a public school student getting shot and killed since 1999 to be about 1 in 614,000,000.)
The lack of rules for the drills has also caused problems.
Some schools do not notify teachers and students in the days beforehand, based on state laws that require the drills to be conducted without prior warning. Once a drill starts, administrators might announce over the loudspeaker that it’s just an exercise. Or they might not: When two Wisconsin schools held “Code Red,” or school violence, drills in October 2018 without telling teachers and students that they were just drills, enraged parents wrote a letter to the school district, blaming it for “creating a false sense of trauma in staff and students for the sake of ‘making it seem real’ or in order to have people ‘take it seriously.’” (A bill introduced earlier this month would give Wisconsin school administrators the ability to warn students beforehand.)
Some worry that too much emphasis on active shooter drills comes at the expense of preparing for more probable situations that schools may face, such as a noncustodial parent trying to sign a child out of school, a pupil choking or an extreme weather event.
“What people should be practicing are functions,” Michael Dorn, executive director of school-safety consulting firm Safe Havens International, said. “What we suggest to people to do is you have an array of protective actions, lockdowns, evacuations, reverse evacuations, where you practice going back into the building when the danger is outside.”
He discouraged simulating real shootings, which may look very different in reality than they did during the simulation.
“It can have the reverse effect of what you want,” Dorn said. “You not only induce trauma, but people will be less able to survive if they encounter the real threat.”
‘Don’t be scared, be prepared’: Lessening the anxiety
Some educators and school safety experts are experimenting with ways to minimize students’ stress.
At Liberty Central School District in Liberty, New York, the district’s motto for drills is “Don’t be scared, be prepared.” Teachers tell the more than 1,800 students in the district in advance about the drills, giving them a general time frame for when to expect them. They review their purpose, as well as the procedures, superintendent of schools Augustine Tornatore said.
“These are tough conversations to have, but it’s important elementary school students know that if something bad is happening, that they have a way of dealing with it,” he said.
But the district recognizes some children will still have anxiety during the drills, Tornatore said, so school guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists follow up with students afterward. There is also sensory support and occupational support in classrooms for students with special needs during the drills, such as giving a student who tends to feel anxious a ball to squeeze.
At the 6,800-student Oak Creek-Franklin joint school district just south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teachers tailor drills to the youngest students, calling them “buddy room drills” so they sound less scary. The term is used to practice anything that requires quickly moving, say from one classroom to another or inside from the playground, assistant superintendent for operations Daniel Unertl said.
Another option, according to some school safety experts, is to leave students out of active shooter drills altogether.
“There’s no evidence that they work, and if the real thing does happen, when adrenaline is pumping, all those lessons learned can be forgotten.”
Fox, the Northeastern criminologist, does not see how students benefit from them, arguing that teachers can learn just as well to practice for these events from their local police departments without students being traumatized in the process.
“There’s no evidence that they work, and if the real thing does happen, when adrenaline is pumping, all those lessons learned can be forgotten,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything — it would be just as effective if you just told kids what happens in the case of an active shooter,” he added, just as safety videos on planes don’t involve passengers actually rehearsing an evacuation.
Pottinger, the Arizona mom, said talking through her son’s fears and giving him coping strategies (including telling him to envision an imaginary cloud keeping watch over him) helped him to not be as nervous. She has switched her son to a preschool closer to home but does not blame his previous school, which she believes was just doing what administrators felt was in the kids’ best interest.
Still, she said, seeing the effect that the drills had on her son was “really concerning.”
“I do understand that these protocols are unfortunately becoming more normal and needed,” she said, “but I think there are other strategies that can be implemented.”
CORRECTION (April 15, 2019, 11:30 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of an Arizona city. It is Tucson, not Tuscon.